I’m standing in the room where Keats died, I saw his death mask and a print of Fournier’s ‘The funeral of Shelley’. Flames lick the handsome young man lying on his back on the pyre with his boots on. Byron, Leigh Hunt, Trelawny and others stand by. It’s a cold wintry landscape.
Trelawny orchestrated the pagan ritual on a hot August day; the body was badly decomposed and identified by Keats’ latest poems being stuck in a pocket. As soon as they died mythologizing began. In the next room, locks of their hair and Shelley’s jawbone are preserved. Surely relics belong inside the surrounding Catholic churches.
The best known image of a Romantic poet is probably Byron in Albanian dress, fresh faced with lipstick lips, wrapped in a bright technicoloured turban and thin wave of a moustache. Thomas Phillips was the painter, Byron the Napoleonic art director. Do we recall Byron’s pox, his appetite for sex with children? Their image fashioning and self-fashioning parallels movie stars. Lord Byron, with typical customary disdain, regarded Keats as a dilettante of sensation “always frigging his imagination”.
Keats could be robust, walked 600 miles in Scotland and cultivated a Byronic style. In 1819, bizarrely, he considered joining forces in Latin America with Simón Bolívar. In the Protestant Cemetery I read ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’, and up the hill, ‘Nothing of him that doth fade/ But doth suffer a sea change/ Into something rich and strange’ which Trelawny had taken from The Tempest for Shelley’s memorial. It might make one in love with death,” declared Shelley, “to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.” Keats, on his deathbed, hearing that daisies grew wild on the graves there, rejoiced, saying that he already felt the flowers “growing over” him.
The laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) sacred to Apollo was emblematic for poets, but unnecessary. Adulation is dangerous the image fashioning and self-fashioning parallels movie stars.
“Make me look handsome, David. I know I’ve fucked you around and you hate my guts, but please. Please. And not just good for me age. Good.” He laughs loud and the sun bounces off all the gold. How many gold teeth does he have? “About half a dozen. Honest, I’m worth more dead than alive . . . I love Charles Baudelaire. Him and Shakespeare are the only people I think are better than me. I swear to Christ, I think I’m better than every fucker.” John Cooper Clarke, May 2012